An attractive and scantily clad woman with shiny bobbed hair lounges in her apartment, sipping a cocktail while listening to a Victrola recording of “Hula Lou.” It’s a typical setting for a modern woman of the 1920s—except, perhaps, for the man lying at her feet, dying of a gunshot wound.
The woman was Mrs. Beulah Annan and the man was her lover, Harry Kohlstedt. She had shot him minutes before and was trying to decide what to do next. Some of the details of Annan’s actions just after the murder on April 3, 1924, are true. Others may be embellishments or outright inventions by reporter Maurine Watkins of the Chicago Tribune.
Watkins’s description of Annan’s motive reads like a dime novel: “… [she] shot because he had terminated their little wine party…” and “His body lay hunched against the wall in her bedroom as she played the record over and over again.” Watkins wrote with a darkly humorous sensibility, which newspaper readers relished. Readership was so strong that her reports of this routine murder case quickly moved from the back pages to the front.
Watkins had also reported on another sensational murder trial, that of Belva Gaertner, who was suspected of killing her lover. On March 12, 1924, Walter Law was found dead, slumped over the steering wheel of Belva’s car. “Dancer Faces Jury In Fashion’s Latest,” read one headline. Watkins describes the courtroom scene: “Mrs. Gaertner was as demure as any convent girl—yesterday!—with brown eyes dreamily cast downwards…with rouge [that] made her well on the dangerous side of 30.” The sharp wit of Watkins’s reportage is in the wisecracking urban style of writers such as The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker and displayed in quotes supposedly from Gaertner like “No sweetheart is worth killing—especially when you’ve had a flock of them …” or “… gin and guns—either is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don’t they.”
Maurine Watkins was one of a wave of reporters in the 1920s who spiced crime stories with lurid and intimate details in order to grab front-page headlines. The trend became so popular that reputable papers felt the need to compete and adopted the tabloid style of news as entertainment. Such info-tainment took the bite out of tragic news and turned it into gossip, which readers felt little guilt about enjoying.
Watkins later used the sordid details of the Annan and Gaertner murders, along with the snappy dialogue and cynical attitude of her newspaper coverage, in her successful play, Chicago. Beulah Annan became Roxie Hart and Belva Gaertner became Velma Kelly. “Why, you may even end in wax works!” Jake, the reporter, says in the play. “Lord, girl, you’re getting free publicity a movie queen would die for!”
The time was ripe, in the 1920s, to release a play containing such jaded views of the American judicial system and the manipulation and power of the media. The decade was full of change, trauma, and tension. The Great War had just ended, the influenza pandemic had claimed approximately 675,000 American lives, large numbers of immigrants were pouring into the cities, paved roads enabled greater freedom by automobile, race relations were tense and violent, Prohibition instantly created thousands of jobs for criminals who filled the demand for liquor, and gangsters like Al Capone enjoyed celebrity status. Women got the vote and were flaunting their newfound freedom in previously unheard of ways, such as public smoking, venturing out without chaperones, and going to college in record numbers. These changes continued to spur concerns from the public, that it was dangerous to a woman’s health to study for exams while menstruating, and that education would destroy a woman’s chances of a happy marriage and motherhood. Rarely had Americans encountered this much change so quickly, and they had much reason for cynicism and unease.
Chicago the play premiered in New York in December 1926 and it first played Chicago in September 1927. Gaertner herself attended the Chicago premiere and once again was in the papers: “Belva Sees Chicago and Relives Killing.” Only three months later on December 23, 1927, the film version, produced by Cecil B. DeMille premiered, bringing murder with a satiric edge to a wider audience. By that time, Annan had moved to Indiana where, in 1928, she died of either a mental breakdown or tuberculosis, according to different sources.
In the film, Roxie Hart is less a modern woman than a nightmare of who the modern woman could be. Phyllis Haver portrays Roxie Hart with a flourish of narcissism and manipulation. She behaves much like a naughty six-year old who takes very little seriously, except how she looks and what she can get. At one point, Roxie shows annoyance with her lover by roughly biting his ear and returns his anger with a coy smile. In a badly timed ploy to give him a hefty stack of unpaid bills for extravagant clothing, she tells him, “Shut your eyes Daddy—I’ve got a surprise for you,” as she wedges the bills into his hand. When he refuses to pay, her coy looks turn to anger that has no mature control. Haver acted in more than 100 films, including Thunder (1929), which was Lon Chaney’s last silent film. She was best known as a deft comedienne, having honed her skills as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty. The character of Roxie takes Haver’s acting skills in a comedic direction that was biting and satiric, and less broad.
Julia Faye, who appeared in many DeMille films during her 40-year career, plays Velma Kelly, Roxie’s fellow prisoner. From Velma, Roxie could learn about the fleeting nature of fame and manipulation at the hands of Billy Flynn, but Roxie is too self-absorbed to see.
Frank Urson directed this satiric tale of sex and murder set in his native Chicago. Urson began his career as a cinematographer in 1917, directing his first film in 1921. He worked on a number of films for Demille. After Chicago, Urson made one more film before his untimely death by drowning in 1928.
Victor Varconi, who plays Roxie’s put-upon husband, Amos, was a Hungarian immigrant whose real name was Mihaly Varkonyi. Varconi poignantly portrays the suffering man in love with a no-good dame. Amos and Roxie are a textbook example of codependency. For all his puppy-dog gazes, his virtue is shaky. In order to save Roxie and continue their unhealthy relationship, he lets himself become corrupted.
After the trials of Annan and Gaertner, Watkins’s dark humor soon went out of style. Cases like that of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants accused of murder for possibly political reasons, Leopold and Loeb’s senseless murder of a young teenager, and the vicious, premeditated murder of Albert Snyder by his wife Ruth and her lover Judd Grey were far too serious to be written about with a light hand. Watkins abandoned journalism to attend George Pierce Baker’s playwriting classes at the Yale School of Drama. There she wrote Chicago, based on her articles for the Chicago Tribune.
With the success of the play and the movie version of Chicago, Watkins was in demand, although her success was short-lived. Her next play, Revelry, was not well received and her next step, a career in Hollywood, was short and uneventful. After her time in California, she moved in with her parents and out of the public eye. Although her play Chicago went out of print in 1927, a second film version of Chicago was released in 1942, Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers. This version considerably softened the character of Roxie by turning her into an opportunist, not a murderess.
Watkins was approached throughout the 1950s and the 1960s for the rights to revive her play for Broadway, which, time and time again, she refused to give. Writer and historian Thomas H. Pauly, who published her play and articles on Annan and Gaertner under the title Chicago: With the Chicago Tribune Articles That Inspired It by Maurine Watkins, believes that Watkins was burdened by guilt over her contribution to the acquittals of Annan and Gaertner. She also suffered over the way she had hypocritically satirized her her own profession and her work as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune.
Bob Fosse eventually did secure the rights to the play after Maurine Watkins’s death, in 1969. The musical opened on Broadway in 1975 and ran for two years. Like her two star murderesses, Watkins herself was a relative flash in the pan, her fame fleeting. She was unable, or unwilling, to produce another dramatic story that caught the eye of the public, and so she faded, like them, into obscurity. The kinds of stories that made her famous— killers as celebrities, death as entertainment—have been part and parcel of the media ever since.
Presented at Silent Winter 2006 with live music by Baker-Mehling Hot Five